After days of defending its choice to screen an anti-vaccination film directed by the notorious former physician Andrew Wakefield, the Tribeca Film Festival abruptly announced yesterday that it was withdrawing “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” from its line-up.
The news capped a dramatic week for Tribeca: early last week it announced that it would host the premiere of the Wakefield documentary, paying tribute to his role as a leader of the anti-vaccine movement. The festival acknowledged that he was controversial, but did not acknowledge that Wakefield’s own work had been discredited, notably a 1998 paper in the British medical journal The Lancet, which claimed to show a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. That paper has since been retracted by the journal, and its editor-in-chief has referred to it as “utterly false.”
Countless studies that followed, including one involving more than 95,000 children published this spring, have found no increased autism risk related to vaccines.
Even as Tribeca’s plan to include the film prompted mounting public outrage last week, organizers posted a statement on Friday from its cofounder, the actor Robert DeNiro — who has an autistic child — that reiterated support for “Vaxxed.” By Saturday morning, however, Wakefield’s error-ridden biography was quietly pulled from the Tribeca website. By early Saturday evening, the “Vaxxed” page on Tribeca’s site had mysteriously disappeared, and shortly afterward, the festival released a new statement from DeNiro, in which the actor, citing “concerns with certain things in this film,” said it was being pulled from the schedule.
Tribeca’s decision to withdraw “Vaxxed,” the first high-profile film to dramatize the idea that vaccines cause autism, is a clear acknowledgement that film festivals are not mere “forums” where content is displayed. Rather, they are organizations that curate, or judge, films. With this authority comes social responsibility, in no small part because films — particularly those that attempt to grapple with questions of science — can be uniquely persuasive. The documentary “Blackfish,” for example, is widely credited with spurring SeaWorld to decide to stop breeding killer whales. “Forks Over Knives,” was a rallying cry for the vegan movement, and “An Inconvenient Truth” — who can forget Al Gore standing next to that ever-rising carbon dioxide-temperature graph? — sparked an awareness of the threat of climate change.
Unfortunately, with or without Tribeca, “Vaxxed” may yet bring renewed energy to the anti-vaccine movement. It may even persuade thousands — if not millions — of parents to refuse vaccinations. As such, it will continue to dismay public health officials, especially as a recent meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an association between the “phenomenon of vaccine refusal” and an increased risk of measles. The report found that those who intentionally refuse vaccines are not just putting their own lives in danger — they’re also risking the lives of vaccinated individuals, as a vaccine does not confer 100 percent immunity against a disease.
In the days following Tribeca’s initial acceptance of “Vaxxed,” the public response was swift: Many were appalled and outraged by the film’s trailer, which alleges that the U.S. Center for Disease Control not only knew about the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, but deliberately covered up such knowledge. Borrowing from Al Gore’s playbook, a line on an autism graph rises precipitously as “experts” imply that if vaccinations continue, “half the children and 80 percent of the boys” will be on the autism spectrum by 2032.
All this plays out over apocalyptic music and a fear-mongering production style. The film’s message is clear: If we don’t stop vaccinating our children immediately, we are headed towards certain doom.
Yet while anger over “Vaxxed” was brewing amongst the general public, the documentary film world remained strangely silent. Yes, there was an open letter from filmmaker Penny Lane, but few — if any — major film organizations or individuals took a public stance on the controversy, or even tweeted their opinions on the matter. There was certainly not a sense of condemnation — or anything close to it.
It is possible that documentary filmmakers, as a whole, know little about the widely debunked anti-vaccine movement. (If you’re one of them, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Seth Mnookin’s powerful book, The Panic Virus). It is also probable that filmmakers did not want to damage their connections: In the small tightly-networked world of documentary film, the festival programmer at Tribeca one year could be deciding whether you get that Sundance grant the next. It is hard to overstate the power wielded by film festival programmers, who can make or break filmmakers’ careers at an apparent whim.
But it is also possible that the screening of “Vaxxed” did not incense most of the documentary film community. Indeed, the raison d’être of the documentary film world is that stories are worth telling. Any documentary filmmaker can tell you that the more “diverse” the perspective, the “fresher” the voice, the more “dialogue” it generates, the greater the film’s perceived worth. Thus Tribeca’s initial defense — that it was merely a “forum” for “dialogue and discussion” — was likely not as surprising for documentary filmmakers as it was for the general public.
The fact that this justification failed so completely should force the documentary film community to reflect on the limits of the oft-repeated “storytelling” mantras. If David Duke made a film advocating racial segregation, would it be worthy of being heard? What about a film purporting to prove the Holocaust never happened?
Instead of accepting that there is a value inherent in all kinds of storytelling, the Tribeca controversy should drive documentary filmmakers to confront one critical question: When are stories not worth telling?
Tribeca should have never accepted “Vaxxed” into this year’s line-up. And while we should celebrate the withdrawal and praise Tribeca’s willingness to reverse its decision, we should keep in mind that it did not condemn the film, nor did it amend its website or apologize. Tribeca merely made the film disappear — at least from its festival.
This is certainly not the last we’re going to hear of “Vaxxed.” In fact, this is probably just the beginning. In the months and years to come, other film festivals, movie theaters, and screening venues will have to determine if they, too, are willing to host a film that encourages parents not to vaccinate their children.
What this week’s incident made clear is that the “forum” excuse will not work: the decision to show any film—not just “Vaxxed” — is an active choice, one laden with social and ethical responsibilities. Strangely enough, the Tribeca controversy may have been for the best: It will serve as a warning to all those who might next screen “Vaxxed” that their decision is not without consequence.
Anna Wexler is the co-director of the feature documentary film “Unorthodox” (2013) and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Science, Technology & Society at MIT.